mini-reviews: men explain, shrill, trainwreck, win at feminism

I’m always interested in reading books by and about women and our cultural and societal experiences. These four books caught my eye over the past year or so, and I was happy to learn more from different perspectives than my own on beauty standards, feminism, misogyny, and more:

Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me was on my radar as soon as it came out a few years ago, but I finally got around to reading it last year. I had not read any of her essays before, but I’d definitely heard of her. Of course, I’ve experienced mansplaining in work and life. Solnit’s collection here starts off with the titular essay recounting a time she was at a party where a man was telling her all about this excellent book he recently read… only to have to tell him that she wrote that book, which flabbergasted him. The rest of the book’s essays aren’t all quite so anecdotal; they cover a range of feminist issues and topics that can be familiar. It starts off and finishes strong, but there is some repetition throughout the essays (not Solnit’s fault, the essays weren’t written all with the intention of being published together in one volume), and unfortunately it was missing and acknowledgement or discussion of intersectional feminism, but the issues covered here are very real and depressing. Solnit does have a dry humor and an optimism that keeps you engaged. I was pretty fired up after reading this. [Read ebook in October 2016.]

Excellent read! I loved Lindy West’s Shrill, read it in two days. Her collection is all about her experiences coming of age in our beauty-obsessed society, fat shaming, harassment, sexism, and more. She sharply points out absurdities in our culture when it comes to what makes women visible and valued by society (be quiet, be pretty, etc., STILL), with hilarious essay titles. The essay about the limited (and flawed) list of fat women role models available to her as a child was pure gold. I went from laughing out loud to feeling enraged (during a piece about receiving death/rape threats on Twitter) to uplifted to empowered, often all in the same chapter. West is not shrill at all—she’s funny, insightful, and self-aware, and espouses loving yourself more than anything else. [Read ebook in November 2016.]

I already know how hard it is to be a woman in the world. Little things needle at us constantly all day, every day, telling us that we’re “less than,” not good enough, attractive enough, perfect enough, etc. etc. But Sady Doyle’s Trainwreck opened my eyes to how we as a society (even fellow women) destroy women who are in the public eye. It’s a thought-provoking study and in some instances even shocking exactly how far we’ll tear women down. There are some obvious examples, like Hillary Clinton, Britney Spears, and Miley Cyrus, but some others I never considered, historical examples like Sylvia Plath and Mary Shelley. As a musician, I have loved Billie Holiday for years and I knew her tragic, sad life story, but not from this sociological perspective. It was a fascinating, illuminating read on how we love to watch women crash and burn and we’ll blacklist them and label them negatively while we celebrate men who behave similarly. [Listened to audiobook in July 2017.]

I’ve been a fan of Reductress for a while on Facebook—the headlines are killer! There are lots of funny bits in its new book How to Win at Feminism but I think it’s best digested in small doses over time. It takes the jokes pretty far, sometimes farther than comfortable, veering out of satire and into shaming (mostly of privileged white straight women feminists). When the jokes are on point and land just right they’re hilarious, but more often the snark can be overwhelming to my taste. That probably happens because it’s too long overall, but it’s good for some laughs. [Read in October 2017.]

mini-reviews: children, women, trouble, men without

I used to think I wasn’t much of a short story person, but in the last year I’ve read a good handful of collections of them, and even bought a few more! Short stories still aren’t my favorite type of literature, but I’m really starting to come around to them.

Alexander Weinstein imagines people getting by in a near-future world taken over by technological advances in his debut, Children of the New World, with often dangerous and frightening consequences, featuring pieces on robots, industry and commercialism, cloning, virtual reality, memory, and more. The stories are more speculative than straight-up science fiction. Weinstein takes our society and culture already addicted to technology and social media and pushes that obsession to numerous edges, from merely uncomfortable to utterly catastrophic. They make you think about your own use of and dependence on social media and technology, brainwashing and memory, and what it means to be human and present in the modern world. His writing is kind of quiet though, I didn’t feel like I was reading sensationalist warnings necessarily. My favorite stories include “Saying Goodbye to Yang,” “Heartland,” “Children of the New World,” “Rocket Night,” and “Ice Age.” [Read in December 2016.]

I will read the hell out of anything and everything Roxane Gay writes, and I was so excited when her short story collection Difficult Women was released early this year. Gay’s writing is raw, affecting, and poetic. She presents women in her work who are complex, emotional, damaged, and have persevered through tragedy. I loved all the stories and had a hard time setting them down, but check out this incredibly prescient passage from “Noble Things:” “…there was anger and then there were petitions and then terrible decisions were made—demands for secession, refusals from Washington, rising tensions, a war to bring secession about, the wall erected, everything going to hell on only one side of the wall, dulling whatever victory was to be had. It all happened so fast, it hardly seemed real, until the war began and it was too real and then the war ended and nothing had been saved, which was always the case when foolish men made foolish, prideful decisions.” Written in 2014. [Read in February 2017.]

I bought Get in Trouble by Kelly Link right when it was released, after Margaret Atwood mentioned Link as an author she was currently enjoying during a Q&A portion of her lecture I attended in 2015. As with many short story collections, this was full of hits-or-misses… I’d say, for me, six of the nine stories were good. A few were too long, but a few others could have been longer. “The Summer People,” “Secret Identity,” “The Lesson,” and “Two Houses” were my favorites. I loved the weirdness and magical realism aspects, and Link’s sense of fun and pushing boundaries in her writing. [Read in March 2017.]

Haruki Murakami’s Men Without Women, his latest short story collection, was a nice read, although I think I enjoy Murakami in full-novel form better. His signature cat and magical realism elements are included here throughout. The stories have melancholic and somewhat surreal atmospheres, and the writing is beautiful, as usual, but I think I read this book at the wrong time in my life, during a period where I needed something more uplifting. That said, I liked “Drive My Car,” “Scheherezade,” “Kino,” and “Samsa in Love” the best. [Listened to audiobook in May 2017.]

mini-reviews: hidden figures and packing for mars

Early this year I finally got around to a couple of books on the subject of the history and mechanics of space travel that I’d been excited about. Even though I’m artsy fartsy by nature and vocation I still love learning about some science, especially when it involves kick-ass women!

Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly features an excellent, important subject: the true-life story of the brilliant NASA mathematicians who did the calculations to send Americans to the moon in the 1960s were a team of black women. I loved the anecdotes about the women’s lives—who they were; their families; dealing with racial segregation in work, education, and neighborhoods, etc. But you have to slog through several chapters that have technical language and read like a textbook. I really struggled through these parts and ended up skimming a lot, which I should have resorted to in a 265–page book. I feel badly, because again I love the topic, but this is a case where the movie is actually better than the book. [Read ebook in March 2017.]

I’m had a lot of fun reading Packing for Mars,  recommended by my husband who is a big Mary Roach fan (and I turned him on to her books in the first place!). In this one, Roach delves deeply into the topic of the effect of space travel on the human body. What happens to your body when you don’t walk on the ground for a year? Can you have sex in space? How do you go to the bathroom? And other urgent inquiries along these lines, as well as the history of space travel in general, are investigated by Roach with her usual wit, charm, and down-to-earth (sorry) writing. She embarks on many on-ground simulations designed by NASA to test I wish I had read this back-to-back with The Martian; they’d make a great complementary pair. This made me want to go watch Apollo 13 and The Simpsons’ “Deep Space Homer” again soon! Some chapters dragged for me, but more were good, informative, and engaging. Mars wasn’t as good as Stiff (a new non-fiction classic, in my opinion), but it’s still a fun, interesting book. [Read in January 2017.]

book club: colony in a nation, bitch planet 2, and new jim crow

During my visit back to the States in November, I spent a week in Kansas City and one of my priorities there was a Best Friends International Book Club meeting with my beloved Anthony! He was a sight for sore eyes and gives the greatest hugs.

We may not have stayed on topic quite as well as last time by Skype, but it was still so great to discuss books and life with him, especially in person.

We like to typically choose two to three books: one or two that one or the other of us has read already, and one or two that’s new to both of us. For this installment, Anthony had read A Colony in a Nation (but I’ve had it waiting on my shelf), and both Bitch Planet, Book Two and The New Jim Crow were new reads for us. (We also ended up discussing Hillary Clinton’s What Happened a little bit, too!)

Our first choice was A Colony in a Nation by Chris Hayes. Confession: I have the biggest nerd-crush on Chris Hayes! I loved his first book, Twilight of the Elites, and I was super excited for Colony to come out. I bought it on its release date at Kinokuniya here in Singapore. As an astute and observant reporter for MSNBC and The Nation, Hayes has been checking his white privilege for a long time. He discusses his coverage of the turbulence in Ferguson and Baltimore after the murders of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, respectively. This is not “a white guy explaining race to you.” Hayes does use personal anecdotes to point out aspects of racial inequality in the States, but always in a way that serves his argument. For example, he relates a time he was genuinely terrified of getting busted for weed by the cops, at the Republican National Convention no less, but was waved through security with no issue. But if he had been black? Surely arrested with unnecessarily tough punishment, possibly even shot on the spot. You may think, Well this is all very obvious, of course black Americans are discriminated against in society and the criminal justice system. But Hayes takes that and lays out exactly how, historically and democratically, the system has always been stacked against black Americans, and how there are two distinct Americas (“… American criminal justice isn’t one system with racial disparities but two distinct regimes. One (the Nation) is the kind of policing regime you expect in a democracy; the other is the kind you expect in an occupied land… the terrifying truth is that we as a people created the Colony through democratic means.” pg. 32). This is an awesome, short read to get you started on this subject, and a good companion to our other pick this time, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. [Read in October 2017.]

After liking the first volume, Anthony and I decided to continue with Bitch Planet, Book Two: President Bitch by DeConnick and De Landro. What I said when reviewing the first book (“I love how in-your-face this graphic novel is, and how the women are non-apologetic and kick-ass…I think Bitch Planet has a great premise and is an excellent, creative way to get readers thinking and talking about intersectional feminism, the prison industrial complex, sexism, societal expectations of women, and more.”) is still pretty much how I feel. I enjoyed President Bitch even better than Extraordinary Machine. This second installment had the backstory I was missing in the first, as well as even more inclusion of intersectional feminism, featuring trans women too. I was glad to see less of the Megaton game (if at all? I can’t remember!). I love how one message in particular is loud and clear: if women (on Earth and Bitch Planet) stick together and fight, their resistance of the patriarchal Protectorate will only grow and surely eventually triumph. And it closed with a compelling cliffhanger! [Read in October 2017.]

Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow is ESSENTIAL READING FOR EVERYONE. I can’t stress enough the importance of this book. It took me kind of a long time to get through because every few pages I’d get so infuriated that I’d have to set it down and pace around for a while. The situation is just so bleak and unjust. Alexander didn’t even have to go into dramatic histrionics—literally just plainly lay out the facts and statistics. I knew some things going into this, in general as a concerned citizen and after reading Colony, but Alexander does an eye-opening job of unveiling layer after layer of corruption and bullshit in the criminal justice system and Prison Industrial Complex, and exactly how deep this all goes, and why it’s rooted in the War on Drugs, which was DESIGNED to legally create the next, current iteration of Jim Crow. A black man, for example, is convicted for possessing a miniscule amount of weed for the first time. He is convicted to 10–20 years in prison. When he gets out, he has no housing, no job, often no access to a car, tons of court and other fees to pay, no food assistance, he loses custody and access to his kids, and he can’t participate in basic rights as a citizen such as voting and serving on a jury. (CANNOT VOTE. Think about that—a whole mass people who can’t vote… what would the outcome of the 2016 election have looked like if prisoners and parolees could have voted?? This is yet another example of our racist system disenfranchising and keeping black and brown people from participating in democracy as fully recognized citizens.) Family members are reticent to take him in, as they’re liable if anything happens again and could lose their homes… even if it doesn’t happen in their homes but down the street!! Society has also engineered a system where black and brown Americans are left out of jobs and housing in cities across the country, which contributes to this nasty, practically inescapable cycle. They’re automatically second-class citizens, unable to get ahead (or even back to the starting line) by political design. This book made me better understand why people take terrible, lose-lose plea deals. I’m having heart palpitations and just sick typing this all up right now. This is a must-read, profound, accessible book and I’m pissed at myself for not reading it immediately when it came out. [Read in October 2017.]

Our next choices for BFIBC are Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer (one of my all-time favorites), The Glass House by Jeannette Walls, and The Power by Naomi Alderman. I’m going to try to read Glass House and Power before the end of this month/year!

mini-reviews: dear ijeawele and it’s up to the women

This week, I listened to two short audiobooks on feminist ideas, one from 2017 and one from 1933. It was really interesting hearing these back-to-back, and both would be excellent for discussion in a book club!

First, I listened to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s latest long-form essay Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions. I enjoyed both We Should All Be Feminists and Americanah, so of course I was interested in this one. Adichie can come across as a little snotty to me sometimes… there are a few inside jokes she mentions to her friend. But I can’t deny her excellent and articulate way with words. Dear Ijeawele isn’t necessarily groundbreaking, and neither is We Should All Be Feminists, but Adichie conveys basic feminist messaging with unapologetic power and clarity, which I appreciate and admire. [Listened to audiobook in October 2017.]

Right after Dear Ijeawele, I listened to It’s Up to the Women by Eleanor Roosevelt. This is her first book, written in 1933. I think I had way too high expectations—it’s more of an instruction manual for housewives during the Great Depression than “feminist manifesto,” to borrow from the title of Adichie’s book above. Some of the observations are prescient and timely even for today, like the growing roles women should, will, and do have the progressing world. Some of the advice is pretty much only applicable to the time period in which this was written, though, and curious to hear considering Roosevelt never suffered the same hardships through the Depression as almost all of her fellow citizens. Her writing may be plain, but her earnestness and sincerity is clear in her suggestions and observations. Roosevelt is an inspiring historical figure, a forward-thinking woman to be admired, and it’s frustrating that her vision for more influence, power, and equality for women still hasn’t been realized in the United States 84 years later. [Listened to audiobook in October 2017.]

mini-reviews: milk and honey, tilting our plates, more beautiful things

Something unusual for me… I read quite a bit of poetry in the last year. In addition to Maya Angelou’s Phenomenal Woman (recently posted), I read these three collections:

Rupi Kaur’s incredibly popular milk and honey started strong enough but lost me halfway. I see why her work resonates with so many, I do. It’s familiar subject matter, accessible, and easy to “get,” unlike some other poetry. But I was completely underwhelmed by the collection as a whole. I know I’ve heard or read some of these lines before elsewhere. Other readers have compared this to Tumblr posts, and I agree. While simple, linear drawings can be effective, I wasn’t really impressed by those included here. The whole thing is way over-hyped. [Read ebook in November 2016.]

I picked up Singaporean poet Cyril Wong’s Tilting Our Plates to Catch the Light as a gift for my mom for Christmas last year, as I was getting everyone uniquely Singaporean gifts and she’s a reader. I couldn’t help but read this slim volume first before shipping it off, though! Tilting Our Plates uses musical (symphonic) metaphors and the ancient myth of Shiva (as Mohini) falling in love with Vishnu to relate the story of a couple in love, aging, and living in the shadow of a disease. Wong conveys simple poignancy in the everyday ordinariness of a deep partnership. It’s a lovely, heartbreaking collection. [Read in December 2016.]

There are a handful of striking poems in Morgan Parker’s There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé, like “All They want Is…,” “Afro,” “13 Ways,” “The Gospel According to Her,” “Welcome to the Jungle,” and “99 Problems.” There’s tension, rage, empowerment, and vulnerability simmering throughout many of the poems. But others fell flat… again it could be me—I’m starting to think that I’m not much of a poetry person in general. And I also definitely recognize that some are not meant for me—I do not personally know the black womanhood experience. But I like to learn, acknowledge, and be open-minded. I think these pieces would be more impactful performed aloud. [Read ebook in May 2017.]